The Recovery Position [Pt One]

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Helen Parlor

In this two part feature Helen Parlor discusses injury and illness and the devastating effects on a dancer both personally and professionally and how to find your way back when it seems as though all is lost.

To be a dancer, we of course have to be fit and healthy. We spend hours every day training our bodies to become an instrument that is finely tuned and responsive to the demands that our career requests. Unfortunately, illness and injury place a heavy burden upon our career choice. Firstly; quite often, we are left unpaid and unable to work. Secondly; because the tool we rely on to do our work, our body, suffers and becomes less efficient, sometimes we are completely unable to perform the duties a dancer is required to meet. So, what then?

It is hard enough scraping the pennies together to afford physiotherapy and treatment when we are working, so what happens when injury takes a hold? More importantly; it is imperative that if you find yourself in this situation you keep your mind set healthy. A depressed, injured or ill dancer will see no light at the end of the tunnel and will find themselves making poor choices. A dancer may leave their desired career because of financial trouble, or perhaps they will ‘struggle on’, working whilst ill or injured, making their situation far more unpredictable.

Throughout my time in college I had few injuries. I had the odd back pain and muscle fatigue, but nothing that caused any major problems. So I regarded myself as being very lucky having seen many of my classmates leave the course through sickness or injury.

Free of Obstacles

When I became a ‘professional dancer’ the road was not quite so free of obstacles. I graduated in 1998 and since that time I have fractured the scaphoid bone in my hand, torn the cartilage in my right knee and , most recently, suffered a brain hemorrhage! Far from the healthy lifestyle I had envisioned! I know what it's like to be injured and not doing the thing you love to do. I know about the depression you experience when you are not able to perform or even dance the way you used to. More importantly; I also know that it does not mean the end of your career in dance. Sometimes people forget they have options.

When I fractured my scaphoid bone, I was a week away from performing the premiere of ‘DansConnect’, a new A4E lottery funded project, headed by Swindon Dance. All the funders were coming to the premiere, as well as the choreographers, and it was going to be a big event. The company and Swindon Dance were very excited about it. So; after falling on my hand I found myself in a horrible position. At first I tried to ignore it, hoping the pain would subside. There was no swelling and no bruising, so I thought it was nothing serious.

However, when I could not use my left hand to eat my dinner because of the terrible pain, I had no choice but to visit Accident and Emergency.

After a few X Rays and consultations they confirmed that a fracture had occurred. Their treatment would be a hard splint that would ride half way up my left arm, forcing me to keep it straight until it healed. This just did not seem real. I had a premiere to perform in the next week. Splint? Immobility? After the initial shock, fear and mass of tears, I had to phone my boss, Jackie Fahy. I was absolutely terrified, but there was no other option.

We did not cancel the show and luckily enough through a lot of hard work, particularly from the other dancers, we managed to adjust the pieces I was in. I still performed and managed to persuade the doctors to just bandage my hand and wrists and face the consequences later. The consequences soon arrived. My hand was X-Rayed again and this time it showed that where I had used my hand, the bone shape and angle had become deformed.

The fracture was not healing properly which would mean that my thumb would stick out at a funny angle so an operation was necessary to fix the damage. After a successful operation, I endured six weeks with my forearm in plaster, unable to do some of the silly things I had previously taken for granted.

Negative Points

I reached a point where I became very negative. I could not see what opportunities this situation could give me until my colleagues pointed them out. They suggested looking at reassessing my training. I made it my focus to become much fitter. By doing this it helped me feel more positive and energised. The situation also gave me time to concentrate on my lower muscle strength, looking at footwork, stamina, endurance and clarity. It was important to do this to be able to learn from the situation I found myself in. I wanted it to help me develop, to learn more about my body and aid my awareness to different training techniques.

Anatomy 101
What is the Patella (Knee Cap)

The patella or kneecap is a thick, triangular bone which articulates with the femur and covers and protects the front of the knee joint.

It develops from the tendon of the Quadriceps femoris muscle, which contracts to straighten the leg. The patella increases the leverage that the tendon can exert on the femur by increasing the angle at which it acts.

information by Wikepedia © 2004

What is the Scaphoid Bone?

The scaphoid bone of the wrist is found on the thumb side of the hand, within the anatomical snuffbox. It is approximately the size and shape of a cashew, and is slow to heal because of the poor circulation to the bone.

Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to break, and is one of the most commonly fractured bones. Approximately 60% of wrist fractures are scaphoid fractures.

Fractures of the scaphoid must be recognized and treated quickly, as prompt treatment is the key to the bone healing quickly. Delays may complicate healing. Even rapidly immobilized fractures may require surgical treatment, including use of the Hebert scaphoid screw to bind the two halves together.

When the cast was finally removed I felt I had a new outlook on my training. I probably would not have realised this without the accident. Having a weakness in this area also encouraged me to improve my strength in my arms and wrists to counteract any further weaknesses. The rest of the contract was a great development for me personally because I was given the space and time to recover, which I know is not always the case in most dance companies.

Without the understanding that I was given in this situation I am sure things would have been much more difficult. I feel that it is now time for more dance companies to realise some of the strains that they are placing on their dancers, almost forcing them to perform when they are injured instead of really exploring the options.

In this case, I had time to recover stage by stage. I started to do more and more until I could return to full duties. Back up plans are really important in these circumstances. I was lucky that I had the backing of an organisation like Swindon Dance who allowed proper, paid recovery time. In this instance it allowed me to focus my energy on getting back to work, instead of adding to my financial strains which is what has happened to me in recent years.

The next hurdle was far greater. Working for Motionhouse [Dance Theatre] is an extremely demanding job both mentally and physically. Most of their productions do over 100 shows, which in comparison to most contemporary companies is a large amount for one cast. There is no cover when you are ill or injured, so quite often you push through the shows, looking forward to your bed at the end of the evening. I had been suffering with pain in my right knee for a while but had no real time to investigate exactly what was causing it.

During the pre-show rehearsals in Newbury at the Corn Exchange, I was just about to take off into my colleague, Dave Mckenna, when my knee made a sort of snapping sound as I left the ground. I asked Dave whether he had heard it and when he put me down my leg gave way.

After the initial shock, because I was not really feeling that much pain, I tried to get up again. Every time I bent my knee past a certain point it would give way. Then it started to tense and stiffen up and with that came the pain. I was taken to hospital and they put a bandage around it, which did nothing. I returned to the theatre in a quandary about what to do.

Dealing with a Knee Joint Injury

By this time a physiotherapist had turned up. She strapped my knee very tightly to hold the kneecap in place, initially believing that I had perhaps dislocated my kneecap. This improved the strength and stability in my leg so I tried out a few of the moves.

The show went on and I think that was one of my biggest mistakes. I should have said ‘no’. In fact, my colleague Dave turned round to me, once the decision had been made, stating his disbelief at my choice.

The pain I endured through the night was unbelievable. It felt like my heart was beating inside my knee and there was no comfortable position to lie in.

If I got my leg straight then I could not bend it again and vice versa. Walking down the stairs was impossible and the knee just kept on giving way suddenly. After seeing many specialists I visited one who specialized in knee injuries and he advised that it was probably a dislocation and again his suggestion was strapping to keep the kneecap stable. When I asked him whether it could happen again he said the probability was fairly high. Having an instability causes weakness, which could lead onto many other problems.

The next few months were a battle. I felt that I was unable to develop my skills as a dancer because I was unable to use my body efficiently. My body could not commit to the movement and therefore it was impossible for me to move on technically or even mentally. Seven months on, just before we were hitting the South Bank, my knee went again. This time my knee specialist advised that I saw a surgeon to ascertain where we should go from this point. He believed that I had torn my cartilage as there was a great deal of muscle wastage in comparison to my left leg and my posture had also altered to accommodate this.

About a month later I had the surgery done privately since the waiting list for the NHS was about two years. Dance is my livelihood and a surgeon that was held in high regard would possibly be a better choice to make. The operation costs were about £3, 500 in total.

Tricky Situation

Depression soon followed. Where on earth was I going to get this money from? How was I going to earn a living during the recovery time? Unlike Swindon Dance, Motionhouse were unable to offer me financial help during this period. It is a tricky situation. Dance companies struggle financially. They are bound by funders and the risk of losing money, any extra costs are difficult. A dance company could not possibly afford to pay a sick or injured dancer.

However, are we creating a vicious circle? The only way that this can work is if nothing goes wrong. This is an unlikely probability during long and physically demanding tours. As for the dancers, they feel somewhat like a broken toy, useless, because they cannot fulfil their role in the company. It is a horrible situation to be in as an artist if you feel you are unable to develop, you feel as though you have reached a dead end.

Is it not about time that we start to fight for better conditions and start to include these costs in our funding applications? Since I joined the company in 2000 there has not been a tour when nothing has happened. I have seen dancers going on stage risking their bodies by throwing themselves into one another, when one of the dancers has spent the entire day in bed wondering how they will muster the energy to do the show.

Are We Kidding Ourselves?

Is this a safe way to commit to our profession or are we just kidding ourselves that we are like machines? We need time to rest, to stay healthy, to look at how injuries are caused and do something about those injuries to prevent any future problems.

What tends to happen is that we go hurtling on head first, regardless of the consequences. When something happens you have only yourself to blame because the job security within a dance company is just not there. The company will just find someone else while you are left behind, unable to work.

If you have an injury, look after it. Stop pretending it's not there or it will come back and bite you when you least expect it and the consequences for you body and career will be far greater. Sort it out as soon as you can. It will be cheaper, better for you, better for the company you are working for and you will be standing up for yourself.

We are working in a highly physical profession. Footballers, boxers and tennis players all injure themselves. Dancers are not exempt from this. We need to stop pretending that we are. No positive outcome will come from your ignorance of what's happening to you.

[ Read Part Two ]

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The Recovery Position [Pt Two]

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